Imagine his dismay

Carlos Fraenkel

  • Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
    Cape, 286 pp, £18.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 910702 03 1

Salman Rushdie’s latest novel is a version of The Arabian Nights – two years, eight months and 28 nights adds up to 1001 of them. But it’s updated in every way. The climax, set in present-day New York, is an apocalyptic battle between reason and unreason, good and evil, light and darkness, with all the bells and whistles of a Hollywood blockbuster – X-Men, The Avengers, Star Wars, to name a few of the movies and comic books Rushdie nods to. Rushdie’s stand-in for Scheherazade is, of all people, the great 12th-century Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd, better known in the West as Averroes, a commentator on Aristotle and one of the last representatives of falsafa – the grand philosophical tradition of medieval Islam – in Muslim Spain. In Rushdie’s retelling, Ibn Rushd’s commitment to ‘reason, logic and science’ got him into trouble with the ‘Berber fanatics who were spreading like a pestilence across Arab Spain’. They ‘disgraced’ him ‘on account of his liberal ideas’ and ‘burned’ his writings. The clash between reason and fanaticism – mostly of the Muslim variety, though Catholic bigotry and Hindu nationalism are sniffed at as well – is at the heart of the novel; fanaticism, with its punishing God, is for Rushdie (quoting the inscription on an etching by Goya) the monster that ‘fantasy’ breeds when ‘abandoned by reason’.

The story begins in 1195, when, after a distinguished career as chief judge of Sevilla, and then as physician to the caliph in Córdoba, the seat of the caliphate in Muslim Spain, Ibn Rushd finds himself exiled in ‘the small village of Lucena’. There he hooks up with a pretty 16-year-old girl, one of (or so he thinks) the town’s crypto-Jews who’d been forced to convert to Islam by those ‘Berber fanatics’. Their romance lasts two years, eight months and 28 days and during most nights – in some unusual pillow talk – Ibn Rushd recounts philosophical arguments from his epic dispute with the Muslim theologian al-Ghazālī. Unlike the real Scheherazade, Ibn Rushd tells ‘the story of his mind’ not to save his life, but because, already in his late sixties, he can’t satisfy the sexual appetite of his ‘always horny’ lover.

A bit of background to the pillow talk: al-Ghazālī wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers at the end of the 11th century, a polemic arguing that although reason can guide us in logic, mathematics and the natural sciences, it can’t provide definitive answers to ultimate metaphysical questions. Al-Ghazālī charges the philosophers with subscribing to three doctrines that put them outside the bounds of Islam – among them that the world is eternal rather than created and that there is no resurrection of the dead (immortality is intellectual not physical). About a century later Ibn Rushd wrote The Incoherence of the Incoherence, defending reason against al-Ghazālī’s doubts and arguing that reason’s teachings never contradict true religion. The debate between al-Ghazālī and Ibn Rushd is one of the most intriguing of the Middle Ages, but it is also so technical that even seasoned scholars risk falling asleep over it. But that’s not how Rushdie’s Ibn Rushd gets ‘off the hook’. His young companion is actually turned on by the nocturnal philosophical recitations. More than to his body she’s drawn to his mind.

As Rushdie imagines them, Ibn Rushd is a medieval champion of Enlightenment and al-Ghazālī ‘the greatest scourge of philosophy’ of all time. Since al-Ghazālī’s ideas ‘inherit the kingdom’ in the Islamic world, Muslim fanaticism has destroyed Muslim rationalism. Luckily Ibn Rushd’s ideas fall on fertile ground in Europe, where his commentaries on Aristotle become ‘the cornerstones of the infidels’ godless philosophy, called saecularis’. For Rushdie, then, Ibn Rushd and al-Ghazālī function as the intellectual progenitors of the two sides battling each other in today’s war on terror: the secular West and religious fanatics.

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